Techniques for Memorizing Greek Grammar
I’ve visited Greece many times, but have never learned the language beyond a few basics and some vocabulary. The most difficult challenge in learning Greek is the complex grammar.
Here are some examples of the difficulties:
English words don’t change much according to context. The word for “doctor” is always “doctor”. If we want to say that the doctor possesses something, we just add ‘s to the end: “The doctor’s house.”
It’s much more complicated in Greek.
“The doctor” could be written in the following ways in Greek, depending on where is appears in a sentence:
- Ο γιατρός είναι εδώ. (“O yiatros …” — The doctor is here.)
- Βλέπω τον γιατρό. (“… ton yiatro” — I see the doctor.)
- Το σπίτι του γιατρού. (“… tou yiatrou” — The house of the doctor.)
Greek has grammatical cases, which means that nouns and adjectives get inflected. Even the word for “the” changes in at least 18 different situations (singular or plural; nominative, genitive, or accusative; and masculine, feminine, and neuter).
Memory Palace Ideas
I’m trying to think about how to solve this problem using mnemonic techniques. The basic forms can be listed in tables like this:
The number in each cell could represent a locus in a memory palace. Each locus could contain at least two words: one for singular, and one for plural.
Here is an example using 18 situations for Greek words for “the”:
|Nominative||ο – οι||η – οι||το – τα|
|Genitive||του – των||της – των||του – των|
|Accusative||το(ν) – τους||τη(ν) – τις||το – τους|
I’m thinking that instead of memorizing just the articles, I will memorize a simple phrase with each article in order to create patterns in context. So the memory journey might look something like this:
- Ο γιατρός είναι εδώ. Οι γιατροί είναι εδώ. [singular and plural: nominative, masculine]
- Η κυρία είναι εδώ. Οι κυρίες είναι εδώ. [singular and plural: nominative, feminine]
- Το παιδί είναι εδώ. Τα παιδιά είναι εδώ. [singular and plural: nominative, neuter]
- Το σπίτι του γιατρού. Το σπίτι των γιατρών. [singular and plural: genitive, masculine]
- Το σπίτι της κυρίας. Το σπίτι των κυριών. [singular and plural: genitive, feminine]
- Το σπίτι του παιδιού. Το σπίτι των παιδιών. [singular and plural: genitive, neuter]
- Βλέπω τον γιατρό. Βλέπω τους γιατρούς. [singular and plural: accusative, masculine]
- Βλέπω την κυρία. Βλέπω τις κυρίες. [singular and plural: accusative, feminine]
- Βλέπω το παιδί. Βλέπω τα παιδιά. [singular and plural: accusative, neuter]
(I hope that I have a grammar correct above. If anyone reading this speaks Greek and notices any mistakes, please let me know.)
Another challenge of memorization is that one sound can be represented by many different letter combinations. The sound “i” (as in “beet”) can be represented by any of these letters and combinations:
Some of the letters that look English letters are pronounced much differently, so my existing mnemonic images for English letters might not cross over smoothly:
- Η = i
- Ρ = r
- δ = delta is pronounced like “th” in “the”. The English “d” sound is spelled “ΝΤ” in Greek.
- ν = n
I don’t know what to do about this problem yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something along the way.
Accents in Greek fall in unpredictable places. An example is the Syntagma metro stop in Athens. Foreigners call it “Sin-TAG-ma”, when it is actually “SIN-dag-ma” (Σύνταγμα).
I’ve previously dealt with this problem by using my number shape images to mark the accent. For example, I added a swan (2) to my image for the Greek word, μαζί, to remember that it has the accent on the second syllable.
My main goal for this summer is still to learn Esperanto, but since I am in Greece for a while, I don’t want to miss this opportunity spend a bit of time on the language.
My goal isn’t to learn to “speak Greek by the end of the trip” or to memorize “X” number of words. It is just to push myself past the grammatical barrier that has been keeping me from learning Greek all these years. I will be traveling to Greece many times in the future, and hope to gradually pick up the language over several years.
I’m also interested in seeing what can be discovered about using mnemonic techniques for memorizing complex grammar. Esperanto has very simple grammar, and there isn’t much opportunity to apply memory techniques to grammatical cases, inflections, weird spellings, unpredictable accents, and other elements that make Greek perfect for this kind of experiment.
UPDATE: see also more thoughts on memorizing Greek Grammar.